Halong Bay: You Are Not Alone
Like any traveller worth their salt, Jared and I decided that time was money and flew from Hoi An (really, nearby Danang) to Hanoi. Gone are the days when I would buy the cheapest transport possible, inserting eight-hour layovers into an otherwise four-hour journey all for the sake of saving 50 bucks. Now, I’d rather pay $45 to fly for an hour instead of paying $10 for a 17 hour bus ride. So that is what we did.
Pity our Jetstar flight was delayed by six hours.
So, experts at killing time, we followed the well-trodden path to Treats for some more free pool. If I never play pool again, I won’t be sorry. Despite the delay, the flight was still worthwhile, and we were tucked up in the Little Hanoi Hostel by nine PM. On arrival, we booked a Halong Bay tour that departed the following morning. Then we gorged ourselves on free bananas and hot lime juice before falling asleep in the awesome bed of luxury.
Jared was particularly disappointed because the trip to Halong Bay marked the first time he had been forced to wear pants in Vietnam. The weather was officially chilly again, though it was hard to tell at first because of the body heat generated in our little van. There were people installed in every available space – Jared and I had to sit together in the front passenger side. Good thing we already knew each other.
The van stopped at an obligatory rest stop/tourist trap that was full of ‘genuine’ Vietnamese goods, like tacky beaded purses, overpriced traditional garments, and these children:
We arrived at Halong Bay at roughly the same time as the rest of the world. It was packed with people, guides, busses, boats and fumes. The recent sinking of a boat in the bay doesn’t come as a huge surprise after seeing how many people churn through each day. I suspect there are many boats that may not be up to scratch.
Our boat, the DragonHeart, looked exactly like most of the other boats out there. Big, old, wooden, with confused tourists clomping about the upper deck. We were ushered into the dining room with four other couples and a family of four. The DragonHeart sputtered to life and we cruised out into the misty bay, eating platters of seafood and fruit while making awkward conversations with the people around us.
“So, are you enjoying Vietnam?”
“Yes, and you?”
“Yes, it’s beautiful.”
“Yes. Too bad about the weather, though.”
“Yes. Too bad.”
At least the scenery was captivating.
We were the only native English speakers on the boat, though it didn’t make much of a difference as everyone else spoke English to some degree. We sat with a French couple at meals, so I had a chance to practice my long-defunct college French. To my irritation, I found that random Korean words kept popping out of my mouth instead of French ones. Exactly the opposite tends to happen when I am in Korea.
The boat stopped at an enormous limestone cave, where everyone disembarked. I was astonished at the number of people posing for photographs inside the cave. I’m no photographer, but even I understand that a regular point-and shoot digital camera is only going to yield blurry pictures. No one, not even you, is ever going to look at those photos again.
That didn’t stop me from taking one or two of my own, of course.
On the way back to the boat, we deflected sales pitches from women who were running mini-supermarkets out of their rowboats. They were fully stocked with bottled water, Snickers bars, wine, crackers, and beer. These women row relentlessly around the junks, coming right up to the window of your bedroom and shouting, “You want to buy?” There were a few times I had to dive to the mattress so they didn’t see me in there.
I was going to take a picture of the convenience store boats, but I got distracted by these monkeys.
Besides, I didn’t need to buy anything because dinner was an hour away, which meant more endless platters of seafood, rice, vegetables and anonymous fried goods. Until then we just milled around. There’s not a whole lot to do on a boat, actually.
Our table of four were the only ones to notice the mice scavenging under a vacant table after dinner, and silently drew our feet up. The boat seemed clean enough, but the mice put a little damper on that illusion. I heard them the entire night racing through the wooden walls, and developed an intense fear that they would crawl out and feast on my flesh.
The next day we stopped at Cat Ba Island to drop off the people who were continuing on to the 3-day tour. This included everyone except us. I am pretty sure we were the envy of the boat. It was just a little bit too cold to fully enjoy the experience. We were transferred to a different boat for the journey back, which was undertaken at full speed. After all, the next set of tourists were already waiting on the docks.